UK's Covid immunity 'drops to 50%' as death toll mounts

Booster programme vital as daily infections average close to 40,000, say medical experts

Britain’s surge in Covid fatalities in recent weeks is likely linked to a worrying drop in immunity from initial vaccinations, medical experts have told The National.

With the UK recording more than 200 deaths a day for most of this week, there are growing concerns that the 80 per cent immunity coverage given by initial vaccinations has fallen to as low as 50 per cent.

This could herald a lengthy period with a high death rate before a third booster injection is able to restore people’s protection.

Official data published on Friday showed that a further 193 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 – bringing Britain's total death toll to 141,588.

Around one in 50 people in households in England had Covid-19 in the week to October 30, unchanged from the previous week, according to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics.

One in 50 is the equivalent of about 1.1 million people, and is the same proportion of people who were estimated to have coronavirus at the peak of the second wave in early January.

It is also the highest level of infections since weekly ONS estimates began in July 2020.

“The original trials were only showing 70 to 80 per cent protection and the boosters are unlikely to make that any better,” Prof Graeme Ackland of the University of Edinburgh told The National.

“Waning immunity might have gone down by now to maybe only 50 per cent since vaccines were administered at the beginning of the year.”

It also appears that the government is currently willing to accept the current body count – which could equate to 22,000 deaths over winter – without imposing its Plan B requiring further restrictions.

“There is nothing in the data that suggests Plan B is necessary,” the Prime Minister’s spokesman told The National.

But the spokesman urged the public to get the booster shot that has been given to nine million people in the UK to date.

“People need that extra protection because of the waning immunity,” he said.

Infections are averaging almost 40,000 daily and in the last week Britain’s death rate has increased by 12 per cent with almost 1,197 deaths, the highest since early March.

“The increase in the fatality rate simply reflects the increased average age of people who've been infected,” said Prof Ackland.

“The combination of opening schools and not initially vaccinating the under 18s pretty much guaranteed that lots of school kids will get Covid.

“The calculation was they would just get a bit sick but now the older age groups are catching the wave of infection that went through the school, it goes to the parents and eventually to the grandparents.”

Dr Ilan Kelman of University College London said an acceptable death count is “ultimately a political decision” that the government should be clear about.

“Do we have to accept this is a cost of the winter? If the government says fine, we're going to have 200 people more a day dying they should be upfront, say that and say that they're willing to accept that,” Dr Kelman said.

But the government remains tight-lipped over what the death rate needs to reach it imposes Plan B.

Prof Ackland suggested this might happen if the Delta Plus variant proves particularly deadly, to help ease pressure on the publicly funded National Health Service.

“If the death count approaches 500 day, this would probably be the trigger point for the lockdown because they know that works and prevents the NHS from being overwhelmed.”

It is now apparent that the vaccination programme has protected people from death and serious illness, but not from catching and transferring the infection.

The latest evidence shows that unvaccinated people are 32 times more likely to be killed by Covid-19.

Scientists also agree that herd immunity is now highly unlikely, particularly given the infectiousness of the Delta variant.

“There can't be herd immunity, which stops transmission, with a vaccine that doesn't prevent infection,” said Prof David Heymann, formerly of the US Centre for Disease Control.

“What's important now is to let population immunity develop through natural infection and through vaccination in a way that doesn't cause serious illness and death. It is clear over the last year that vaccinated people have remained pretty well protected against severe illness and death.”

The scientists told The National that greater urgency is needed to find out precisely who is dying. “We need the updated information on how many people were unvaccinated who died,” said Prof Heymann.

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, noted that “well in excess of a million people” had coronavirus in the past week, “many of whom will have been walking around in their daily lives, spreading the disease without realising it before developing symptoms, or without being affected at all”.

He added: “It is too early to know if this will be the peak of the latest wave of infections ... It is concerning that infection levels in older people could be on the rise. This may be a result of waning immunity, which would emphasise the importance of the current booster jab campaign.”

There are also growing fears that the NHS could be broken after another severe winter of high infections.

“They are exhausted, they are stretched, and they are receiving unacceptable levels of abuse,” said Dr Kelman. “This is primarily about protecting the NHS because workers will become infected and infect their family and many of them will die.

“What we should be doing is very straightforward, honest, and rapid analysis of who is dying and why. We really need that data.”

Prof Ackland also called for the data because the “concern would be if it wasn't just unvaccinated people, but people who were vaccinated were also still dying at a fairly significant rate”.

Europe also appears to be heading towards a higher death rate, potentially as people’s immunity wanes, with the continent’s vaccination programme about a month to six weeks behind the UK’s.

The World Health Organisation has stated Europe is again the hotspot for the pandemic warning that another 500,000 Europeans could die by February. It blamed low take-up with countries such France, where vaccination has stalled at under 70 per cent and in eastern Europe where it is lower still.

But there is also some optimism that there will not be a serious flu epidemic this winter as a number of travel restrictions still remain in place.

The latest ONS figures also appear to show that UK Covid-19 infections are stabilising at around 40,000 a day, below the 100,000 a day doomsday figure.

While the Delta Plus variant is currently the biggest worry, the WHO is currently watching 22 “variants of interest”, according to Prof Heymann. If any of these turn into a “variant of concern” the vaccines will once again be tested on whether they can prevent fatalities.

The coming months are clearly going to be a serious examination of medical science and political decision-making.

Updated: November 7th 2021, 10:45 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS